We’ve previously discussed some of the ways drone technology is revolutionizing heavy industry in general. Now, let’s zoom in on stockpile management because drones are completely changing how mining and aggregates companies operate.

This technology is providing new levels of business intelligence, creating operational efficiencies and making these companies better neighbors.

Here are 10 reasons any mining or aggregates company should look to drones for their stockpile measurements.

Drones Create a Path From a Reactive to a Proactive Way of Doing Business

Demand forecasting is probably the biggest opportunity for site managers.

By being able to fly quickly over a site, measure changes in stockpiles and render that into a 3D model, drones offer one of the best methods for estimating what client demands will look like in the future. Therefore, companies can anticipate demand rather than having to scramble to find ways to meet it.

Dr. Shane Buchanan, asphalt performance manager at Oldcastle Materials, tells Asphalt Magazine’s Mat Herron that this completely changes the way a business can be run — for the better.

“Aside from the proliferation of drones, Buchanan said he sees more companies emphasizing a demand forecast model, which can tell them how much material they will need for a client and adjust that forecast accordingly,” Herron writes. “Demand forecast helps ensure a company knows which aggregates it will need for a given time period, and that it can obtain them efficiently.”

They Provide Accurate Measurements and Predictive Models

Geomatics manager Stantton Pallister tells On-Site Magazine that the 3D models of construction projects that drone data can deliver have been a game-changer for both the company and its customers.

The models look impressive, sure, but having accurate measurements of aggregates down to the cubic meter means quantities of earth or gravel never get written off, and construction teams can bill for work completed precisely and progressively. “We’re more accurate, and this adds up to substantial savings,” Pallister says.

That Intel Will Only Get Better, Too

In May, Christina Cardoza at InterDrone reported on some deep-learning software that a company called Neurala was developing for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars and drones.

Massimiliano Versace, the company’s CEO, told Cardoza that the software is built upon the company’s understanding of neural networks, which mimic how the brain learns and retains information. With this kind of artificial intelligence in a drone, he says, the vehicle will be able to learn how to navigate around obstacles and scramble when it detects a situation in which it needs to provide visibility.

In other words, it won’t be long until your drone will detect when stockpile volumes have changed, and fly itself out to the pile for an up-to-date measurement.

National-Level Regulators Are Turning to Drones, Too

It’s not just companies that are embracing the benefits of aerial intelligence. Governments and industry regulators — who require site owners to have data calculations and verifications done by a third party — are embracing drones as an effective means of verifying stockpile volumes and site owner compliance.

As Sarah O’Brien-Smith at the law firm Hunt & Humphry notes, Australia’s Department of Mines and Petroleum has begun to deploy UAVs to monitor compliance with the country’s Mining Act of 1978.

“As operations often span hundreds of kilometres across remote landscapes, the key driver for the use of [UAVs] is gaining information efficiently and safely,” she writes.

Drone Manufacturers Are Doubling Down on Mining and Construction

Multi-rotor hobbyists may have been the initial drivers of drone ubiquity, but the companies that make the technology have recognized that the future of their industry is in commercial applications — and demand is hottest right now in the heavy industries.

As Jeremiah Karpowicz at Commercial UAV News points out, DJI’s release of the enterprise-level M200 drone, Parrot’s pivot toward commercial applications and Skyward’s acquisition by Verizon are all strong indicators that we should expect to see rapid innovation and new opportunities in our industry.

Drones Help Other On-Site Technology Work Together Better

The intel from drone data does more than just help site operators make better business decisions. It also helps the site operator’s entire fleet of tools talk to one another and work together more efficiently.

Caterpillar is already taking steps toward building a fleet of machines — drones plus other worksite vehicles — that can all share data among one another. At the time of writing, the company has a fleet of a half million connected machines.

“Our vision is that by enhancing our Cat Connect Technology and Services offerings, entire fleets and worksites — every machine, engine, truck, light tower, smart device, and drone — will eventually share data on one common Caterpillar technology platform and speak the same language,” Caterpillar CMO George Taylor tells Quick Base.

Drones Help Mining Companies Be Better Neighbors

A big site with all of its operations can be disruptive to the people and animals that live nearby, and that’s often because site managers don’t have a complete picture of the needs and wants of these neighbors. Drone surveillance is changing that, BHP Billiton’s Frans Knox writes.

For example, in Western Australia the company’s drones are being deployed to map and record sites of cultural heritage for local Aboriginal communities.

“For me, the bigger picture is what this technology allows us to do that could never have been done before, and for us that means being able to share and preserve cultural heritage that might otherwise have been lost,” BHP Billiton Heritage Manager Daniel Bruckner tells Knox. “We’re now able to share all our footage with local Aboriginal groups, and they’re excited about that possibility.”

Drones Save Money and Time

Let’s go with the most obvious benefit first: Drones can go where people can’t (or shouldn’t), and they can do so more quickly and for far less money than a manned aircraft could.

So, sure, it was theoretically possible to perform aerial stockpile measurements in the past, but that aircraft required at least one person to fly it, the job would have taken a long time, and the measurements would not necessarily have been accurate without modern tools such as photogrammetry and mobile lidar.

Simply put, stockpile measurements taken this way are not a good use of time or money. “Without drones, these tasks might require hiring a plane or helicopter…” Skyward’s Annie Norris writes at sUAS News. “Drones provide the opportunity to offer these services at a more competitive rate, and with the bonus of gathering the data safely.”

They Make Work Verification Much Easier

Even in an office with 30 people, it’s hard to get visibility on how much work is getting done. Scale that to a worksite of acres upon acres, and verifying work is nearly impossible without an eye in the sky.

But verifying work is crucial for site managers who need to keep track of progress and check to ensure key milestones are hit, Hugh McFall writes:

“Drones have helped bridge this gap: many of our customers fly their site once per day, process their images into an orthomosaic, and then create an elevation map that can then be compared to the initial site plans as the project goes on. This helps document and monitor progress at important phases of the project, and enables more focused quality control.”

Those Efficiencies Will Be Needed as the Aggregates Industry Grows

As Persistence Market Research notes in its Global Market Study on Construction Aggregates: Industry Analysis and Forecast 2016-2024 report, global consumption of aggregates will grow from 43.3 billion metric tons to 69.2 billion metric tons over that eight-year span.

As that pie grows, so will competition for the various slices of it. The companies that walk their piles once a month will continue to lose ground to the companies that have real-time, to-the-cubic-meter volumetric data about their stockpiles.

images by: João Rocha, Mariusz Prusaczyk